Graduate students may have a doctoral expiration date

Lizzie Jespersen

While graduation looms on the horizon for many, its weight is felt acutely by students like Eric Dieter, who spent almost 12 years working toward his Ph.D. Dieter, who began his doctoral coursework in 2001, was one of the 4,903 UT graduate students pursuing their Ph.D.s this fall. Dieter completed his dissertation in the field of rhetoric two weeks ago.

Brittany Linton, Student Ombudsperson and counseling psychology graduate student, serves as a confidential and neutral resource for students to voice grievances they may have with the University or their studies. In a presentation she gave to the Graduate Student Assembly, Linton said about 25 percent of her caseload consists of graduate students. Of those students, she said some cases come from students in the 10th or 11th years of their Ph.D.s who are submitting complaints that they are being pushed to submit their dissertations by the end of the semester.

While the typical graduation rate of Ph.D. students varies from department to department, some programs place more emphasis on meeting time standards than others.

In the Department of Economics, Ph.D. students generally complete their dissertations by their fifth or sixth year, according to economics department chair Jason Abrevaya. Students who exceed this allotment of time either leave or are forced to leave the program.

Charles Tinney, an aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics assistant professor who does research with Ph.D. students, said there are varying opinions regarding whether graduation rates of Ph.D. students should be enforced.

“If a student is performing at a very high level, meaning they’re doing outstanding research and that they’re publishing and they’re a minimal cost to the University, why would you want them to graduate early?” Tinney said. “I don’t know that the University should enforce somebody to put a rubber stamp on the amount of time somebody takes to complete their doctorate degree.”

Dieter spent eight years on his doctoral coursework and qualifying exams before finally beginning his dissertation in 2009. In the 12 years he spent enrolled in the doctoral program, he worked full-time for the UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement in addition to teaching, putting time into his marriage and serving on the board of directors for local nonprofit Ecology Action.

“There was some sense that I didn’t want to submit my whole life to [my Ph.D.],” Dieter said. “I wanted to have a sort of work/life balance.”

While Dieter said he often wished he were able to complete his Ph.D. earlier and move on, he felt a strong sense of support from his wife, program and work. Still, Dieter faced the stigmas he perceived as attached to “perpetual students.”

“It’s really easy to moralize and say that there is something bad as a person that you took so long, and I think that’s obviously not healthy,” Dieter said. “Circumstances are generally the problem, but not the flaw of the person. Life happens. You can’t moralize about it.”

Though he felt the weight of these perceptions and the costs of tuition, Dieter said he considers learning deeply the most rewarding part of his Ph.D.

Around the time he completed his dissertation, Dieter was promoted in his work and celebrated his 37th birthday.

“I wanted to finish what I started,” Dieter said. “There’s things I could have done different, but a lot of things I did right.”